21 years ago I was caught up in a riot. Not as a perpetrator but as a pint sized teacher running for her life. I worked at Nairobi Technical College stuck in an existence I hadn’t envisioned for myself. I had wanted to become a musician but when I applied and was accepted for a B.Ed in Music, my mom went behind my back and changed the course. By the time I realised what she had done, I had lost my slot and was instead called to B.Ed in English and Secretarial studies.
“There is no future as a Musician in Kenya,” my parents said to me and I had better sense than to bite the hand that feeds you.
Four years later, I found myself at the front of a class teaching wild eyed students about why it is incorrect to say, “I could care less,” instead of “I couldn’t care less.” Or that ‘Irregardless’ is not a word.
On the day of the riot, the students were agitated about school fee increment and decided to take their war to the streets; a common occurrence during that time. All was fine and dandy until the stones started to fly about. When the running battles with the police begun, I made a break for it. In the process, someone shoved me. My body hit the ground but my legs must have still been in motion. The incoordination between my limbs gave rise to a blinding pain in one of my legs and that is how I ended up with a fracture.
That was my cue. I was done. I only went back to finish the semester, balancing on crutches and then resigned.
I later joined the Corporate world; first in the HR department and then as an Office Administrator for a couple of years. By then I had sealed off my dream of becoming a musician — like a room you stop going into. It was easier to play the cards on my deck than hang onto a desire that had lived inside me like blood and bone since I was a little girl. Besides, the job paid well even if the work would keep me in the office from when the sun rose to when it yawned and even beyond.
Some light years later, I conceived. When I got to 25 weeks I developed complications warranting bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy.
My first daughter was born looking like a translucent polythene bag. Her blood vessels were striking; a fork of green branches. The doctors said she had anaemia — a result of my low iron levels during pregnancy. She then developed a fever and was transferred to the NICU because of her condition. I would like to say that was the beginning of my problems but in hindsight, maybe not. They began much earlier.
First, I was unable to breastfeed. She just could not latch onto my breast. So I resigned myself to pumping milk for her. I would stay awake all night, subjecting my nipples to continuous painful suction, only to end up with nothing more than a shot of breast milk.
‘I have to do this for her. It’s my fault she is anaemic,’ I would tell myself, no matter how frustrating it was.
Once, when in the NICU going about milking myself, a visiting nurse from the UK approached me, “Why aren’t you breastfeeding?” Her voice was as smooth as melted chocolate.
“My baby refused. I tried to place her on the breast but she just can’t latch. I was told some babies are just like that.”
“Would you mind if we tried?”
I got the baby and as I lowered my dress she said, “Oh, you have inverted nipples. Here, let me show you how to form a nipple.” She gently held my breast and showed me how to hold my nipple.
Next, she taught me how to hold the baby. She kept mentioning things like, “This is the cross cradle technique,” or “here, let’s try the football technique.”
I didn’t care much for the names because thirty minutes later, my baby was breastfeeding and in a couple of days her health remarkably improved and we were allowed home.
The memory of that nurse clung to me like a scent. ‘How many mums out there were like me?’ I wondered. I bottled those thoughts and shelved them — for a while.
During that era, maternity leave was a paltry two months. When the time to go back to work loomed, a knot formed in my gut. I had just gotten the hang of this motherhood thing. How was I going to leave my baby at home at just two months of age? The thought of the long working hours gnawed at me and I knew I could not go back. After discussions with my husband, I handed in my resignation letter.
For the next few months, my daughter and I became the two musketeers. I was able to breastfeed exclusively for six months, watch her grow and achieve her milestones. I wouldn’t trade that season for anything.
It was when I had gone to visit a friend who had just delivered, that my life took a turn. As she tried to breastfeed I noticed she was struggling with latching.
“Hey,” I turned to her, “you know I also had issues when I first started to breastfeed. I could show you what I was shown.”
After some minutes her baby latched and was feeding. ‘Wow. This is something I can do! I am a trained teacher afterall!’ I said to myself. It was as if I had been a lamp hidden in a lighting store that was unplugged but now was.
That is how I started looking for opportunities for training. There were none in Kenya at the time. Everytime I mentioned to someone what I intended to do they would say, “A breastfeeding what? Why would you want to teach women how to breastfeed? They have been doing it for centuries without issue!”
The words they muttered to me, were like white noise. I was like a dog with a bone rather a dog without a bone and eagerly looking for one.
Soon, a friend told me about an Infant and Young child nutrition seminar at the National Referral Hospital. I attended. We were taught about breastfeeding counselling and that was my first building block. With the information I received I became a breastfeeding counsellor able to give mom’s information about breatsfeeding, milk supply and nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.
After that there was no stopping me. I searched for opportunities and started to attend both physical and online trainings. I did a Certificate in lactation management and became a Lactation consultant. My second building block.
Because I lacked confidence my consults were pro bono. I made a point of visiting any friend or relative who had delivered to support them on how to breatsfeed. My skill and confidence grew. I then graduated from offering free services to saying, “Just pay for my transport and I will come.” I just didn’t know how to put a price to this service. And no one else was doing it! In between helping my friends, I would give talks in church and even interned at the National Referral Hospital in the Nutrition Department. This was by far my greatest training ground.
Once, I went to support a lady who asked me, “So how much do you charge?
“1500,” I blurted out off the top of my head and held my breath.
“Oh ok.” She said and gave me the money. That was the best money I have ever earned. And my business was born.
I started to get more and more referrals until I realised that I would support mom’s through breastfeeding then meet them months down the line and their babies were underweight.
“When we introduced solids, we were just not feeding well.” They would say.
So I went back to being that dog without a bone. I did a Diploma in Infant Nutrition and Dietetics. I was now an Infant feeding coach. Another building block.
Each time I supported a mom, my eyes would be opened to a new challenge they were facing. For some of them their issues went as far back as delivery. So I went back for more training and became a Certified Birth Doula to support mothers during delivery and help the baby initiate breatsfeeding immediately after birth. Unfortunately the practise of a Doula in Kenya, has been severely curtailed. But I still wanted to support mothers so I went back for more training and became a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator. I was now able to empower both pregnant women and their partners on what to expect during pregnancy and childbirth.
With all these building blocks I am able to support mothers all the way from pregnancy through to infancy until the potty training period. At some point I added an Infant Massage Certification and sleep training to my portfolio. In a nutshell, I am an Infant Care Specialist.
What I do is not mainstream health. I complement what our health care workers do. Doctors and nurses have their role and most of them meet patients in the hospital setting but a lot can go wrong in between appointments or even at home. I once went to see a mom who called me because her baby was not latching. I got to her house and found a severely dehydrated baby who had not passed urine for two days. I told her to go to hospital immediately and when she was asked, “How could you stay at home with such a sick child?” she said, “I did not know.”
That’s where I come in. The in between. To impart knowledge and to give support.
In hindsight, I am glad I didn’t pursue music. Maybe I would not have found this career that I am so passionate about. I feel I am doing exactly what I was meant to do and everything I did or learnt even as far back as when I was a child has been a building block to what I am today. My job energizes me. I don’t even think of it as work. I like to say if your job is draining you, then maybe you are not in the right place.
I hope one day to open a school to train people on different aspects of childcare and start a centre where moms can come and share and have their needs met. One building block at a time.
This is Esther Kimani’s story. Her brand is Esther the Doula and you can reach her on @estherthedoula.
Once a month, I will be writing feature articles on individuals making strides in health/ health related fields. The feature will be called ‘Perspective.’ This is the first of many.
The series on pregnancy and infant loss will resume next week.
An inverted nipple is a nipple that is turned inward and can pose a challenge to breastfeeding. It looks like this: